Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Ritual

(from The Soup of Something Missing, but first appeared in Quarterly West, University of Utah, No. 50, Spring/Summer 2000.)

The Ritual


On the first day of spring, two men struggled to ascend a steep cliff. The depth of their muscles tested the distance of up. Fear and balance has as much to do with climbing as it does with life; ask a wild dog or fish or a man who fell. The angle of the cliff never changed, neither did the sky’s. When a man kicked a foothold into the rock the dust of another’s sweat rose in a puff like breath on a cool morning. One of the men thought about his fingernails for the first nine minutes, the other spent more time thinking about nothing. A mattress was lashed to each man’s back, depending on his strength it was either an obstacle or a promise. The mattress strained against the rope, the thin line of suffering across the stomach and shoulders.


A beautiful woman stood silhouetted on the edge of the cliff. She pledged to marry the first climber who reached her. From the bottom of the mountain she resembled a bride on a wedding cake. She would untie the mattress from the first man’s back and consummate her pledge as the second man continued up the face. Cool mountain air swirled between her thighs. Dozens of men gathered below to watch. Heads tilted back, hands shielding their eyes from the sun; wind brushed across the shadows in their faces.


When the second climber reached the cliff, the woman also freed him of his mattress. He immediately tossed it to the ground below as if it were an old worry being discarded then jumped, hoping to land on top. Most often he missed. Those who previously envied him carried away the broken body, now lighter without the weight of suffering. The mattress -- stained in the ascent, soiled by the fall -- was cleaned for use in the next contest. Few mattresses, after all, were suitable for such a struggle. It had to be light enough to allow a man to climb as fast as desire, yet thick enough to save him if he was not lucky enough to win but fortunate enough to land on it after he jumped.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Virtu

(Originally published in the New Orleans Review, Loyola University, Vol. 33, Number 2, 2008.)

The Virtu

This wasn’t the first time I watched a woman
wear high heels in the shower.
Closed-toe this time, her toes weren’t painted
and she didn’t want anyone to see.
After she told me this her head tilted back.
Water masked her face in a way
not possible if she was still turned
to me as I stood at the sink shaving
-- or I might have been brushing my teeth,
either way, an inconsequential detail.
Water darkened the red shoes.
Though the damaged world spun beneath,
her balance, of course, was perfect.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Earlier I said I wasn’t going to write about myth but myth is related to truth. If George Orwell hadn’t said “myths which are believed in tend to become true” I would have. Truth is important but never let it become an obsession. There are more versions of truth than lies. That something might have actually happened is not the important truth. The emotional truth is what’s critical. With this said, every word I’ve written is true. I would swear on a blood-stained bible that each and every one of my poems happened as written.

I used to date a lovely young lawyer. We would often go SCUBA diving. In a poem I once wrote “Kathy … was futzing with her equipment.” She was angered by this line, claimed it never happened. (Imagine, a lawyer lecturing a poet on truth! That’s when I first began making notes on what will one day be a book on truth, a book that will become a textbook in some of the more prestigious law schools1.) I tried to explain that something didn’t actually have to happen for it to be true. What made the line true was she could have futzed with her SCUBA gear, and I knew her well enough to know that once we surfaced she was thinking of how she might readjust her equipment -- she thought of futzing! And a thought is as close as you need to come to action to make something true. Of course, she argued that the entire poem2 had little to do with reality. I disagreed and that her problem was only aware of a small slice of the world. Truth is much larger and includes what didn’t happen, but could have happened, and more importantly what you wanted to happen. Kathy believed that literary journals should have a girlfriend rebuttal column. She is now a staff attorney for the NOAA and I believe poetic justice is not within the scope of their concern so any legal action on this front is not likely.

Truth is a poetic device. Use is sparingly. Lies, on the other hand, are boring. Use them even more sparingly.

Poetry occupies a strange place in the minds of literary civilians. Is a book of poems fiction or non-fiction. If you’re making stuff up many would believe you’re writing a short story. People have a tendency to believe what’s in a poem. Though surrealism shows it’s hand and can’t get away with this. Confessional poetry runs into trouble with truth when it tries too hard to appear honest.

The difference between propaganda and poetry is not something I’m prepared to discuss at this point. It should suffice to say that they share goals. A tuning fork struck against a line of each would feel strangely familiar. That’s why intent is critical to understanding truth. Or, to be exact, intent is a more accurate stage for truth. When reality is at odds with even the most fundamental interpretation of emotional truth, reality always loses.

I write to discover truth. I write to remind myself of it. Everything you write in a poem will eventually happen to you. Write carefully.

When you write something honest with a fountain pen the ink dries faster. Pen a lie and the ink shines wet for hours. That’s probably the root of the word smear.

Writing a book on how to write a poem requires a different form of truth than writing a poem. And writing a book on how to write a book on how to write a poem demands an honesty altogether different from both of the previous. You can trust me.

1 I hired a marketing consultant, Bruce Silverman, to look into this possibility by doing focus groups with law school professors at Yale, University of Iowa, and Cardova Law at Yeshiva University.

2 This is that poem:

The sun set into a man’s hat, I saw it myself.
A large red ball into a black bowler, For an instant,
It looked like his hair was aflame. Then darkness.
I wondered if I had seen God. This wasn’t a dream.
I was walking my dog. It reminded me of the time
I was scuba diving off Anacap Island,
Surfaced after twenty-nine minutes at seventy feet.
Kathy came up next and was futzing with her equipment.
Her back to a boast anchored one hundred yards from shore.
A man stepped from the bow and casually walked on water to the island.
Kathy didn’t notice and I didn’t mention it.
This is just between you and me. I think
someone is trying to tell me something.
I can’t prove any of this but I’ve never lied to you before,
not even when I confessed I fell asleep smoking a cigar
in a favorite chair, open book on my lap, tobacco burning
with the lazy breath of sleep, ashes piling on the unread page.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Forgotten

(The poem is not from the Ironmongery manuscript but is in The Soup of Something Missing and originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, University of Alaska, Vol. 19 No. 1 & 2, 2001 pge. 271.)

The Forgotten

We waited for trains for what seemed our entire lives.
The thickness of dust on suitcases, a sign of stature,
the discipline of remaining, even as the tracks rusted.
I felt my flesh thickening, eyes yellowing, the world dulled,
waiting to travel someplace I’d never been.
Our hearts quickened when the ground rumbled.
A dog running between the tracks was a sign from God.
Once, two men sat on their suitcases playing cards.
The loser gave his suitcase to the other and walked away.
His hair, I recall, was thinning.
What was he saying? Something
swallowed by the rustle of leaves.
Do people who disappear from our lives
forget us as easily as we forget them?
On warm afternoons I removed my coat
and stood with it folded over my arm.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Fog is unresolved poetic thoughts. Fog is what happens to false starts, scraps of paper and notebooks that are only written in and never read. The Grand Banks are roughly 155 miles off of the coast of Newfoundland*. With over two hundred days of fog a year, it’s the foggiest place on earth. Considering the fact that people sleep better in fog it seems ironic that so many foggy nights settle on thick, unstable water. Unfortunately most people believe fog is simply a cloud that touches the earth. The difference between fog and mist is distance. If the visibility is less than a kilometer it’s fog; over two kilometers, it’s mist. I’m undecided if I want to discuss mist. It’s not a coincidence that the word mist shares sounds with myth.

The sound of fog is often mistake for wind. Though it’s typically deeper, with a hint of metallic. It’s most accurate description of it is that it resembles wind pushing through a rusted French horn. On the hill opposite ours, a German soldier played the trumpet as fog seeped into the valley. Colonel Soland got out of the jeep, walked to the side of the road and lifted binoculars to his eyes. That night it would rain. In the morning, three of our soldiers would be dead. I got out of the jeep, walked to other side of the road and urinated. When I turned back to the jeep it had disappeared. Sooner or later, everything disappears.

You should be able to write a poem blindfolded. You should be able to write a poem without saying a thing. You should be able to write a poem while a house is burning. You should be able to explain this. If you can’t, there’s no point. I wrote this while sitting in my car while it sat in fog.

*Somewhere in the area of 45 degrees 00' North latitude, 49 degrees 00' West longitude. I sailed there in a 28 foot sailboat to check on specific location but was nervous in that thick fog. I intended to SCUBA dive there but, embarrassingly, lost my nerve.
Last Words

I can’t imagine laying in bed knowing I’ll never again stand up, never wait for a traffic light to change and stroll across the street. I’m afraid to die, not sure what comes next. Death is final and nothing like going to sleep. You never wake up and – this is the part that I find troubling – you don’t even know you’re dead.

“Beautiful” was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last word , and a beautiful last word it was. Poems are always last words, even when they’re not.

It seems sophomoric to say that Yannis Ritsos is my favorite poet. But he is. So many times I’ve read his poems and imagine them as his last words.

“I am dying. I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time” was Chekhov’s last words and I wouldn’t have expected less from a great writer.

Emily Dickinson’s last words, 1886, could be a poem, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” And the fog did rise. Kidney disease took her life.

I hope to live to 100* but let me say for the record, even at this premature point, there’s nothing I have said or will say at some future date that needs to be remembered outside of my poems. Though I will check that somewhere along the way I’ve written the words “I love you” in a poem for all of those that I have.

I’ve never appreciated found poems as much as I probably should but have thought to write a poem, and here I use the word write loosely, made up entirely of last words.

One of my favorite last words used to be by Daniel Webster, according to a book they were “I still live.... Poetry!” How much I would like to believe that! You deserve to know that everything you’re reading in my book is true. I did some research. According to the New York Times article published Oct. 12, 1881, Webster’s last words really were “I still live – more brandy!”

Pancho Villa had a sense of history and drama he gets little credit for – “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

Cancer took three years to drag my father to his death. My mother sat in the chair beside his hospital bed for the final thirteen days. In a poem I once imagined his last words, then sent the poem to my mother. She called and told me his real last words. “That’s enough, that’s enough.”

The world will end in a poem. I’m convinced of it!

* Doctor Lawrence Gorlick won’t go as far to predict the date of my death but winces when I tell him of this expectation. Of course, he hopes I do live that long but always points out he’ll long be gone. If he goes first I will write poems about him. Long before he was my doctor he was my cousin and a good sport about lending his persona to my poems. This prose poem I wrote about him first appeared in The Harvard Review:

The Plan

I walked into my apartment after work and my left foot was immediately overwhelmed by the warm air. Why didn’t my right foot also enjoy the climate change as quickly? I looked down. My left shoe was missing! I was wearing it when I left the store. No doubt it was stolen by that one-legged bastard Dr. Gorlick. He sat across from me on the bus, eyeing my new shoes as we wove through late afternoon traffic. Not once did he mention the polished leather’s soft glow, the imported style. His envious silence was confession enough. In the few minutes I was asleep -- I always take short naps on buses -- he slipped my shoe off and hid it in his black bag. I know he’ll wear my shoe while he treats patients tomorrow but not on the bus ride home. So I’ll disguise myself as a policeman wounded with a bullet in the stomach. The ambulance will deliver me to his office. My disguise will be so effective that as soon as he finishes treating the wound I’ll arrest him. Before sleep tonight I’ll read a book on police procedure. His crime should not go unpunished because of a technicality on my part.


Ironmongery proves that every word was once a poem.
Ironmongery indicts every word for laziness.
Ironmongery can be anything it wants to.
Ironmongery was discovered in 1711*.
Some words are braver than others. Ironmongery is the bravest of all. When ancient armies faced each other they waved swords, axes and other soon to be red-wet instruments and shouted “ironmongery! ironmongery!” before throwing themselves into battle. There are other beautiful words but ironmongery has the magical ability to drill itself into a sentence or lyric like Excalibur in the stone. The rightful king was the only man who could draw Excalibur from the stone. The poet is the person who can draw ironmongery from the dictionary. The magic of poetry. Fire-breathing words.

Ironmongery means 1. a hardware store or business. 2. the stock of a hardware store; hardware. A poem is a hardware store. Pull poems from a forge. Hammer them against an anvil. That must be how the word ironmongery was first written. I’m positive of it!

Let’s do a chemistry experiment. Take the opening three sentences and replace them with another word, any word. I’ll use shoehorn.
Shoehorn proves that every word was once a poem.
Shoehorn indicts every word for laziness.
Shoehorn can be anything it wants to.

* The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, pp. 1484